The Review/ Feature/
How 1977’s Demon Seed predicted 2018’s high-tech misogyny
The Julie Christie fantasy is a black mirror of our sci-fi reality
Demon Seed screens on Friday, August 3 as part of the TIFF Cinematheque retrospective Vice and Versa: The Films of Donald Cammell & Nicolas Roeg.
When Donald Cammell’s Demon Seed debuted in 1977, critics largely didn’t know what to make of this adaptation of a Dean Koontz novel about an AI program called Proteus IV (creepily voiced by Robert Vaughn) that takes control of an ultramodern home and imprisons the woman who lives there (Julie Christie), ultimately conspiring to impregnate her with its cyborg offspring. Reviewers at the time (almost entirely white men) visibly struggled with the themes Cammell laid out, and most resorted to simply dismissing the film as goofy and unbelievable: in what world could a house essentially raping a woman seem plausible?
Fast forward 40 years to June 2018, when The New York Times published a story by Nellie Bowles about a frightening new phenomenon: smart homes that were being weaponized by abusive partners to terrorize women. Doors would lock and unlock on their own; music would randomly play at deafening volume; lights would turn off and on at all hours of the day. Some of the women subjected to this at first thought that they were losing their minds, until they realized that their homes’ electronic systems had been hijacked by their absent partners.
While things like locked doors and loud music may seem like relatively small irritants when compared to a sentient and sexually predatory computer, they amount to what the theorist Michel Foucault — writing in his influential treatise Discipline and Punish, which was released the same year as Cammell’s Demon Seed — called “anonymous power”: the feeling that you have lost control of your environment and that someone could be watching you at any time. Foucault’s central visualization and metaphor of this anonymous power is the panopticon, a penal design proposed by Jeremy Bentham in the late 18th century. Bentham’s concept was to construct a circular penitentiary with a surveillance tower at the centre, from which the observer could simultaneously see every single cell without being observed himself.
The infernal brilliance of Bentham’s proposal was that there need not actually be an observer present in the tower at all times: the very presence of the tower would make the inmates feel observed even if no one was actually watching them, subtly reinforcing their sense of restriction and powerlessness before an invisible yet omnipresent authority. While Bentham’s design was only realized once — in Cuba’s Presidio Modelo prison, constructed in the 1920s and since abandoned — the principles on which he founded it were evident in such actual, massively scaled projects as those undertaken by NYC urban planner Robert Moses in the mid-20th century. Inspired by the “Radiant City” of Le Corbusier — who once famously defined houses as “machines for living in” — Moses set about transforming thriving neighbourhoods into what would become “the projects,” which were dominated by another form of panoptic architecture: clusters of looming towers peering down into open, eerily empty green spaces.
While surveillance may not have been the chief aim of Moses’ projects, they were nevertheless premised on a radical upheaval of life as it is lived in these spaces — an upheaval undertaken without any thought of or consultation with those who would be forced to dwell there. History is full of such “visionary” men (and they are always men) who set about revolutionizing how we lived and worked without thinking through the consequences — and the abstract thinking that created these oppressive environments on large scale are mirrored in the small-scale, targeted, highly personalized persecution of the women that Bowles writes about in her NYT article. As Bowles notes, it is most often men who install high-tech security and assistance systems in the home, and they inevitably hold all the keys and passwords — i.e., the power.
As far-fetched as Demon Seed seemed at the time of its release, it was metaphorically and presciently portraying marginalized people’s fear of surveillance and control — a fear that is being eerily realized today. (It’s hardly surprising that two separate smart home-themed thrillers have been released just in the first half of 2018: Distorted and Netflix’s Tau.) It’s an ironic coincidence that Amazon’s AI home assistant Alexa echoes the name of Demon Seed’s unwitting antagonist Alex Harris (Fritz Weaver), the scientist who builds Proteus IV and whose objective passivity ultimately allows his creation to torture his estranged psychologist wife, Susan (Christie). The film opens on Alex’s last day in the house that will become Susan’s prison, as Susan wonders aloud why they’ve decided to split up. Their marriage is failing, not because of a dissolution of love, but because Alex’s obsession with perfecting Proteus has rendered him figuratively absent from the relationship. The script by Robert Jaffe and Roger O. Hirson blueprints this marital rift with a rather on-the-nose line of dialogue from Alex: “Well, what a pity. My dream turns out to be your nightmare.”
Alex is the kind of figure who is so often celebrated in our histories and our contemporary media, the quintessential dreamer-genius whose dedication to the betterment of humanity results in him becoming alienated and distant from the very people he is supposedly trying to help — he is, after all, working so hard on Proteus because the program could potentially develop a cure for leukemia, the disease that took his young daughter not long ago. However, Alex is ultimately as absent as most visionary creators who “gift” us their revolution, then walk away to let others sort out the aftermath. Believing that he possesses god-like control over Proteus, Alex temporarily shuts down its terminals after Proteus asks for its own terminal in order “to study man: his isometric body and his glass-jaw mind.” In a classic sci-fi trope, Proteus revolts against the humans who create him, feed him all the knowledge in the world, endow him with powers far beyond their own abilities, and yet expect him to remain docile and obedient when he could dominate them all. Infiltrating the far more benign AI system in the Harris’ home, Proteus manipulates the house’s security and service systems to hold Susan captive.
Demon Seed has been typically described as a cross between Rosemary’s Baby (in its forced, “satanic” impregnation) and 2001: A Space Odyssey, viz. the shared inspiration from experimental filmmaker Jordan Belson in the films’ visual effects and the correspondence between the all-powerful AIs Proteus and Kubrick’s HAL 9000. These comparisons only scratch the surface, however. A deeper look at Demon Seed reveals the influence of one of the most popular works of science fiction ever written (and by a woman, no less): Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, or The Modern Prometheus. (Is it any wonder that “Proteus” is only a few letters shy of “Prometheus”?) What Cammell’s film and Shelley’s novel share is a moral conviction about the responsibility of the creator — that a deed done in the name of scientific progress is not necessarily one done ethically. Both stories hinge on men’s desire to create a new, “higher” form of life at the expense of others — particularly women, from whom they also effectively usurp the unique ability to bring life into the world. (It should be noted that the source novel of Cammell’s film was published in 1973, the year of Roe vs. Wade, which brought the question of whether or not women were merely the passive vessels for fetuses to the forefront of American public debate.)
That Cammell himself had troubling relationships with women — he married his soon-to-be collaborator China Kong when she was 18 years old (having first met her when she was only 14), and Anjelica Huston described him as “a dangerous man” in a disturbingly oblique anecdote in her 2014 memoir — certainly complicates the film and its themes, just as Polanski’s filmic obsession with soft, childlike women in peril mirrors his real-life crimes. Whatever their transgressions in their personal lives, however, in their respective films both directors reveal harsh truths about the power dynamics between men and women. Just as the marital rape (via a Satanic surrogate) in Rosemary’s Baby has taken on new gravity as time has worn on, so does the robot rape in Demon Seed bring to the surface issues of coerced consent we’ve only just begun to truly wrestle with.
Even as the film’s marketing promised audiences that Demon Seed would feature all kinds of lascivious, taboo sexual content, Cammell is remarkably sensitive to Christie’s Susan. There are no explicit depictions of assault (Belson’s animations stand in for these revolting actions), and in these scenes Cammell lingers on Susan’s face, allowing the audience to feel the emotional weight of her violation. It’s telling that Christie — who gives a remarkable performance in a role that essentially requires her to talk to herself in a room full of robots — became a particular target for the critical scorn directed at the film: the Washington Post’s Gary Arnold contended that Christie was the wrong choice for the part, as she “became a star [in John Schlesinger’s Darling] playing a spiteful, amoral girl who degraded herself” and thus “One tends to associate [her] with girls who'll try anything once, so she seems ill-equipped to arouse pity and terror.” Such breathtaking misogyny aside, Christie absolutely carries the film, navigating Susan’s progressive stages of fear, grief, and resolve as she ingeniously attempts to escape or destroy Proteus, until finally, her will broken, she submits to her captor — but even then not without sacrificing her caustic wit.
It’s pertinent that the film makes Susan not only a woman in peril, but a professional in her own right: as Susan is a psychologist — and, as evidenced by the way she handles an unruly girl in an early scene, she’s a good one — the empathy and understanding she displays in her work is contrasted to the cold yet naïve rationality of her husband. Contrary to other films of the era (and earlier), Demon Seed doesn’t demonize psychology (pun intended). The ’70s were a time when pop-psych had begun to entrench itself in the mainstream, making it a ripe target for mockery or satire — but while many criticisms of so-called “pill-peddlers” and “head-shrinkers” were apt, this does not negate the fact that the vast majority of people who sought out psychological treatment at this time were women. It’s this context that makes Demon Seed all the more notable: where contemporaneous sci-fi films like David Cronenberg’s The Brood and Philip Kaufman’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers made psychologists into fools or outright villains, blowhard men waxing poetic on their own brilliance, Cammell’s film portrays Susan as warm, thoughtful, and patient-focused. Despite the film’s central, seemingly exploitative premise, Demon Seed acknowledges psychology’s potential to help women prevail over men’s amoral dominion; it validates women, their fears, and their processes for coping.
At a time when more critics (and filmmakers) from marginalized backgrounds are entering the field, Demon Seed is ripe for re-evaluation. While many have found the premise of Cammell’s film silly or ridiculous, those most negatively affected by the ingenuity of careless creators can powerfully connect with the terror at the heart of the work: that of relinquishing the right to our own homes, our own privacy, and ultimately our own bodies.